DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Senegal's opposition went ahead with a protest Saturday and thousands poured into a square to call for the resignation of the country's octogenarian president after a last-minute change to the venue in order to skirt a ban on demonstrations issued by the Senegalese government.
They amassed at Place de l'Obelisque, just outside Dakar's downtown district, to demand the departure of 85-year-old President Abdoulaye Wade who is attempting to run for a third term. The constitution only allows a president to serve for two terms, and Wade has angered the population of this normally stable country on Africa's western coast by insisting on an interpretation of the electoral code which would allow him to run again in 2012.
The protest marks the one-month anniversary of the violent June 23 demonstration which was the largest in this former French colony in decades. That protest which degenerated into a clash with police emboldened the opposition, raising hopes that an Arab Spring-style democracy movement could spread south to sub-Saharan countries.
"Sometimes the older a person gets, the more immature they become. This old man is acting like a stubborn child," said truck driver Abdoulaye Thiam. He held up a piece of cardboard that said, "Get out of here, Wade, you're 100 years old!"
Across town tens of thousands of people flooded the VDN freeway to attend a rival rally organized by the ruling party. Wade took the microphone to reaffirm his candidacy and rattled off campaign promises. Many of the attendees had been bused in on municipal vehicles from distant villages at the ruling party's expense. Opposition papers reported they were each being given 10,000 West African francs ($20) to attend and at least one participant confirmed she had received money.
A decree published earlier in the week by the Ministry of the Interior banned all demonstrations of a political nature in the major boulevards and in front of government buildings and monuments nearly all of which are located in the upscale Plateau district. Place de l'Obelisque was not mentioned in the decree, however, and so the demonstrators gathered there to call for Wade to step down.
"If we want peace in this country, then the president who is in office and who has no right to be a candidate again, needs to avoid carrying out what could be considered a coup d'etat," said presidential candidate Ibrahima Fall, a former United Nations under-secretary on human rights.
Senegal is a rare patch of democracy in a region besotted by coups. The nation of 12.6 million which is no larger than South Dakota has a history of choosing its leaders peacefully at the ballot box.
Wade came to power in 2000. His predecessor, former President Abdou Diouf, famously called Wade on the eve of the results to congratulate his opponent, an American-style concession that was unheard of on the continent and that has since become a symbol of the maturity of Senegal's democracy.
In the 11 years since, the very people that helped elect Wade have become disenchanted by the increasing share of power he has given to his eldest child and by the garish display of wealth of his ministers.
L'Observateur, an independent newspaper owned by Senegalese pop star Youssou Ndour, recently ran a story about a lavish party including a gastronomic dinner that Wade's prime minister Souleymane Ndene Ndiaye threw to "baptize" his horse. It occurred in a tiny village a 2-hour drive from Dakar where most people cannot afford more than a meal a day.
And many are puzzled and disgusted by Wade's stubborn insistence on running for a third, extraconstitutional term.
Even on a continent where presidents are on average decades older than their European or American counterparts, Wade's advancing age has also become a campaign issue. If he wins another seven-year term in next February's election, Wade will be in power past his 93rd birthday in a country where the life expectancy is 59.
His age raises the possibility of him dying in office, as happened recently in Togo and Gabon, where the death of the country's long-ruling dictator was followed by hastily organized elections in which their sons seized power.
The anger that spilled onto the street on June 23 was sparked by Wade's attempt to rush through a change to the constitution which would have created a vice presidential post. The opposition charged that the vice presidential post was being created so that Wade could run on a ticket with his son, and create a mechanism for his succession in the event of the father's death in office.
Associated Press writer Sadibou Marone in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS Corrects spelling of Abdou Diouf in 9th paragraph.)